Bolivia says it thwarts Morales assassination plot

* Three killed, two arrested in shootout

* Gunfight in Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold

* Morales critic skeptical of account (Adds comment from Morales critic, details)

LA PAZ, April 16 (Reuters) - Bolivian security forces said they thwarted an assassination plot against President Evo Morales on Thursday, killing three people in a half-hour shootout in the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz.

Police chief Hugo Escobar said two Hungarians and a Bolivian, who were believed to be part of a conspiracy to kill Morales, were killed in the gunfight at a hotel in the eastern Bolivian city.

Morales, a socialist, is Bolivia's first indigenous president and has faced strong opposition in relatively wealthy regions of the country, including Santa Cruz. The governor of Santa Cruz, a prominent critic of Morales, voiced skepticism about the government's account.

Speaking later on Thursday during a visit to Venezuela, Morales, who was not in Santa Cruz at the time of the incident shortly after midnight, said an Irish person may have been among what he called foreign mercenaries involved in the suspected plot.

Government officials said authorities had recently been following the suspects.

"Yesterday I gave instructions to the vice president to move to arrest these mercenaries and this morning I was informed of a half-hour shootout at a hotel in the city of Santa Cruz," Morales said, adding two people were under arrest.

There was confusion regarding the nationalities of the foreigners killed. While the chief of police said two of those killed were from Hungary, several local media organizations reported they were from Romania and Ireland.

In La Paz, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia told reporters the men were carrying guns and grenades and attacked police as they approached them.

He said that after the shootout, police found documents "about preparations for an assassination, an attempt on the lives of the president and the vice president" and confiscated sniper rifles, high-caliber guns and other explosives from a nearby building.

Heavily armed police cordoned off the hotel where the gunfight occurred.


Morales has announced several plots against him in the past but the results of investigations have never been released, causing some Bolivians to doubt their veracity.

Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, who has clashed with Morales in the past, said he doubted the government's version of events.

"This has been cheaply staged, this is a show," he told reporters.

Last year, right-wing opposition groups launched violent protests against a referendum promoted by Morales that gives more power to the indigenous majority.

Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia in September, accusing him of encouraging the protests in a bid to oust him.

The president ended a five-day hunger strike on Tuesday after lawmakers passed an electoral law that creates more seats in indigenous areas where his support is strongest. Morales had stopped eating to pressure legislators to pass the law.

Critics say the law tilts the electoral odds in his favor before a December presidential election the former coca farmer is expected to win. (Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas, Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)